Friday, September 27, 2013

Are You Embarrassed by That Romance Novel You’re Reading?

So my husband and I were at a party, and I was talking to a friend of a friend whom I’d never met before. Super cool guy, intelligent, did some kind of performance art. When I told him I wrote novels, his eyes lit up with interest and respect. Always gratifying, right?

Then he asked me what kind of novels I wrote.

I told him Fantasy Romance, and watched him just sort of…deflate. It wasn’t long before he turned away from me completely and started talking to our mutual friend whom, granted, he wanted to catch up with—but I got the distinct impression he was disappointed to discover that I didn’t write in a genre that he considered truly literary or meaningful.

I’m fairly certain he would have still given me the intellectual time of day if I wrote straight Fantasy, or even academic nonfiction about the role romance plays in our society. Romantic fiction, however, was unworthy of his respect and, I’m guessing, the classification of art or literature.

Of course, this isn’t news to anyone who writes or reads romance or erotic novels. From hiding book covers when reading in public, to tee-hee-ing over the naughtiness of the latest shades-of-whatever with co-workers, to defending it as a “guilty pleasure” when someone smirks at us about it. Romance and erotic novels have been called “bodice rippers”, “porn for women”, “mommy porn” (who can forget that little misogynistic gem), and—whether sexually explicit or not—have even been denounced as clinically addictive and at fault for women having affairs and ending their marriages.

First of all, let’s take a look at the “porn” label. “Porn” is a hot button word we use when accusing someone or something of portraying sensual or sexual content in an explicit or taboo manner. An amusing video recently appeared on titled “It’s Not Porn, It’s HBO”, referencing the overtly sexual content of many of HBO’s original series.

But something doesn’t have to be patently sexual to receive the “porn” label. When we see an alluringly framed photo of a scrumptiously fattening dessert, or watch an attractive cooking show host in a flattering outfit make a delicious-looking dish, we jokingly call it “food porn”.

Sensuality and sexiness are basic human draws. Advertisers have capitalized on this truth for decades. Artists have expressed sexuality through their work, using many different mediums, for centuries. Though sex might have once been hidden in the dark, that is no longer the case. It is, after all, how each of us arrived here (unless you were cloned in a secret lab.) It is not taboo in our country’s media. And it would take an event horizon the likes of a zombie apocalypse to shove it back into the closet.

By the way, that’s a positive thing. Societies where strict taboos are placed on sex and sexuality tend to have considerably higher incidences of sexual violence and little to no recourse for victims of that violence.

Sex is already out there being represented in a hundred different ways. Satisfying sex is healthy—mentally, physically and emotionally. Anything that portrays it (between consenting adults) as mutually enjoyable, loving and passionate is good for people and good for society. And though there are always exceptions to the rule, as a whole, that’s what the romance genre does. It characterizes strong intimate relationships between people who love each other, with varying levels of sexual explicitness.

Romance novels teach us to value intimate love. And as for the idea that they’re addictive and can lead to affairs and end marriages, love IS addictive. And if reading about intimacy and passion makes someone realize they’re missing something in their own relationship, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Healthy people who are capable of separating fantasy from reality can choose to try to bring those elements into a relationship that’s worth keeping. And if someone isn’t capable of separating fantasy from reality, they could be entertaining themselves with things much worse than romance novels.

Now I’m not saying that all romance novels are great works of literature. That would be ridiculous. Great works of literature are few and far between in any style of writing. But romance itself is not a subpar genre. Well written romance novels often contain lush poetic imagery and poignant metaphors which outshine those found in more accepted examples of literature. Not to mention, they illustrate a universal truth of the human condition. They tell us a love story. And we all want to be loved, men and women alike.

They aren’t a guilty pleasure any more than any other type of novel, film or work of art that strives to entertain us.

So the next time someone asks me what type of novels I write, and turns their nose up when I tell them, maybe I’ll figure out how to summarize all of this into one short, compelling argument.

Or not. I’ve never been particularly fond of verbal sparring. I prefer to spill my thoughts onto the page, and I choose to express many of them through romances that end in happily ever afters. And in a world that is too often sad, dark and lonely—I’d say that’s practically a service to humanity.

P.S. My newest fantasy romance, GREY’S MAGIC, just hit the e-book shelves. I’d love for you to check it out!